SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey didn’t mince words at the team’s exit interviews last Thursday in assessing where his team stood in its quest to win an NBA championship.
“We have a very good team, but while we have a very good team, the results show that we don’t have a great team,” he said roughly 12 hours after the Jazz were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Houston Rockets after a 50-win regular season.
With that, Utah has officially entered a phase of team building that Jae Crowder acknowledged later in the day is incredibly difficult: Going from good to great, a task he said is much harder than going from bad to good.
It’s certainly an interesting time for the Jazz. Utah has never been a major free agent destination, but there are signs the perception of Utah could be changing around the NBA, and the Jazz could have plenty of money to spend this summer.
The questions, then, become threefold: What does Utah need to become great? Who could the team realistically add? How can that get done?
For the 2018-2019 season, the Jazz finished second among the NBA’s 30 teams in defensive rating, which measures points given up per 100 possessions (Utah finished with a defensive rating of 105.2. The Milwaukee Bucks were first at 104.9). Using a more traditional stat, the Jazz finished fourth in points allowed per game at 106.5, marking the fifth time in Quin Snyder’s five years as head coach that Utah has finished in the top five.
Offensively, the Jazz finished the regular season 14th in offensive rating (110.2) and 17th in points per game at 111.7. These mediocre numbers came despite the fact that, according to the subscription-based website Cleaning The Glass, Utah finished fourth in the league in percentage of their shots attempted at the rim and eighth in percentage of their shots as 3-pointers, which are the two most desirable shots.
What does this mean? One conclusion that can be drawn — and it’s been supported anecdotally for a long time — is that Snyder is a mastermind at creating a successful offense (Lindsey noted during exit interviews that Snyder is doing “some cool stuff” on offense), but that the Jazz weren’t able to execute it well enough.
That’s certainly the case with 3-point shooting. Three Utah players finished in the top 18 in the NBA in 3-pointers attempted during the regular season (Jae Crowder, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles), making the Jazz the only team in the league with three in the top 18. Ingles finished with a solid 39 percent, but Mitchell shot just 36 percent and Crowder only 33 percent.
With the way Snyder has designed his offense, Utah could certainly use at least one more knockdown shooter, which Lindsey pointed out last week.
In truth, the Jazz could use one more scorer in general, whether that comes through a 3-point specialist or a player who is able to get points by creating his own shot. Mitchell finished 16th in the NBA in points per game during the regular season, but the team’s second-leading scorer, Rudy Gobert, finished clear back in a tie for 59th.
Visually, it appeared too often as if the Utah offense stalled, and Mitchell was forced to try to create something out of nothing with the shot clock winding down. Can the Jazz add someone who can ease Mitchell’s burden on offense?
There are two ways Utah can go about adding another established impact player: trade and free agency. Potential trade targets are tricky to identify, and any player could become available at any point, but two who would help the Jazz and it stands to reason could be gettable this summer are Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley and New Orleans Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday.
Utah reportedly had heavy interest in Conley at February’s trade deadline, although Lindsey at exit interviews expressed extreme displeasure that leaked. Would he not want to engage in talks with the Grizzlies about Conley now?
Holiday would make a lot of sense as a combo guard alongside Mitchell, and he could become available if the Pelicans decide they want to start over their roster building if/when they trade Anthony Davis this summer.
The primary challenge for the Jazz in pulling off a trade at this point is salary matching ability. In February, Utah could have traded the soon-to-be-expired contracts of Ricky Rubio and Derrick Favors to help match salary in a trade for Conley. That is no longer possible, and there’s not much left as far as combinations the Jazz would likely be willing to part with or players Memphis and New Orleans would want in exchange for Conley or Holiday.
Besides trade, the other mechanism for adding a significant player during the offseason is free agency. It’s not much of a secret that Utah has never been a major player in free agency, but there have been some indications in recent years that such could be changing.
The first came in 2016 when seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson signed a two-year, $22 million deal with the Jazz. Yes, Johnson was nearing the end of his career and Utah offered plenty of money, but he was only two years removed from his last All-Star appearance, yet he chose to go to Utah. A year later, reports surfaced that Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry was interested in signing with the Jazz before he ultimately returned to the Raptors.
Then along came Donovan Mitchell, who had a remarkable 2017-2018 rookie campaign on and off the floor. His second season, which just concluded, officially propelled him to star status, both in what he produces and in the national following and respect around the league he’s gained.
With Utah building a stronger and stronger reputation as a first-class organization and the pull of playing with Mitchell, could this be the year the Jazz sign an elite free agent who could help ease the scoring burden and raise the overall quality of talent on the roster?
Getting enough salary cap space to potentially sign an elite player such as Charlotte’s Kemba Walker, Phiadelphia’s Tobias Harris or Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton wouldn’t be all that difficult, but it would come at a price as far as team chemistry is concerned.
By simply not resigning Rubio and not guaranteeing the final year on Favors’ current deal, Utah could open up about $30 million in space, which would be right around what these top players will command annually.
At exit interviews, both Lindsey and Rubio made it seem as if Rubio likely won’t be back next season. Lindsey, however, gave the impression that he would very much like to have Favors back, which would make it virtually impossible to sign a max salary player without a series of other moves.
If Favors returns, thus essentially putting max players out of the conversation, shooting specialists such as Milwaukee’s Nikola Mirotic and Orlando’s Terrence Ross would be more realistic free agent targets.23 comments on this story
The Jazz will have until July 6 to guarantee Favors’ contract for next season, which will give them a few days after free agency opens July 1 to figure out if they can land a top-tier free agent.
In terms of Utah’s own free agents, Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh are unrestricted, while Kyle Korver, Raul Neto, Georges Niang and Royce O’Neale have various levels of guarantee on their deals with different guarantee dates.
“I’m excited,” Lindsey said of the upcoming offseason and the chance to make the team better. “We’re excited about the challenge.”